Foods that Can Trigger Headaches

Roderick Spears, MD, a neurologist at Penn Neurology Valley Forge, discusses which foods to avoid in helping to prevent headaches.

Roderick C. Spears, MDIs there anything worse than that moment a headache strikes? You know the one, when that throbbing pain makes it difficult to do virtually anything.

Headaches, a pain in the nerves and muscles of the head and neck, are by far the most complained about issue at the doctor’s office. They are classified into two types:

  • Primary (not associated with an underlying medical condition), and
  • Secondary (associated with infections, fever, injury, etc.).

While most recognize the connection between headaches and illness, many struggle to understand why they may be feeling fine one moment and suffering from a headache the next.

Would you believe that the horrible pounding in your head may actually be caused by something you ate or drank? And we aren’t just talking about the morning after partying. Caffeine, smoked meats and even cheese can cause you to feel like someone is using your head as a bongo.

Food and Drink-Related Headache Triggers

Below is a list of some lesser-known food and drink-related headache triggers.

Coffee and Chocolate

Coffee and chocolate can both be headache triggers and inhibitors. Regular caffeine consumption – found in both – can lead to a physical dependence, which manifests as withdrawal symptoms when a user abruptly stops their caffeine intake.

For example, a regular coffee drinker sleeps a little late on the weekend. She wakes up and decides she doesn’t need a cup of joe to get her day going. An hour passes and her head starts pounding. Why? Her blood vessels have dilated too much. When this occurs, caffeine can actually help to ease the pain.


When it comes to cheese, older isn’t always better… for headaches.

If eating cheese makes your head hurt, it’s likely an aged-type like Swiss, Parmesan, Brie or cheddar. Aged cheeses are high in tyramine, a natural chemical found in some foods. Tyramine can cause headaches by constricting and dilating blood vessels.


Tyramine is once again the culprit. Try avoiding pepperoni, salami, summer sausage and mortadella, and limiting processed meats to four ounces per meal. Processed meats, such as hot dogs, deli meats and bacon can also cause your head to hurt due to synthetic food preservatives.

Soy Sauce

Soy sauce also contains tyramine and sometimes monosodium glutamate (MSG). MSG, which is used as an additive in many other foods, has been found to cause cramps, diarrhea and headaches. Additionally, soy has large amounts of salt, which can lead to dehydration – and, therefore, to headaches.

Ice Cream

Woman with a headacheI scream, you scream, we all scream… ugh, brain freeze!

We’ve all felt the terrible sensation before. That big bowl of ice cream is placed on the table, and you just can’t wait to dive in. You take a scoop or two and – boom – you get hit with the mind-numbing pain.

Here’s the scoop on how you got that brain freeze (which is in fact a form of a headache). When something cold touches the center of the palate, it sets off certain nerves that control how blood flows to your head. The nerves respond by causing the blood vessels in your head to swell up. This quick swelling is what causes your head to hurt. Luckily, these particular headaches tend to only last about a minute, and there’s an easy way to prevent them: Eat slower!

We know that the foods and drinks listed here likely make up a significant portion of your diet. You don’t need to cut everything out, but it may be wise to keep track of when you get headaches and what you indulged in prior to the pain.

Interested in learning more helpful tips?

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